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What Is Recycling and Why Is It Important?

What is recycling—and why is it so important to recycle? This helpful guide covers everything you should know.

Written by
Angelica Pizza

For many of us, recycling has become second nature. Our plastic bottles and paper waste go in their respective bins, and the waste gets picked up on the curb. Yet, even though recycling is a staple in our routines, many of us still don't know what recycling actually is.

Recycling is more than just putting paper and plastic waste in a bin. And believe it or not, many items that have a recycling symbol aren't actually recyclable. So how do we know what's being recycled and what isn't?

To ensure our recycling actually gets recycled, we need to understand what recycling means and what it does for the planet. Here is your go-to guide to recycling.

What Is Recycling?

So, what is recycling? According to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), recycling is the "process of collecting and processing materials that would otherwise be thrown away as trash and turning them into new products." The collection stage begins the process, and it's usually the part we consumers participate in. We collect our plastic, paper, metal, and electronic waste. And then we dispose of each in respectively labeled bins.

However, recycling is more than just dividing your waste. You may get rid of your waste via drop-off locations, curbside pickup, or deposit programs, but the recycling isn't complete. The recycling process has only just begun.

After waste gets picked up, it's sent to a facility to get sorted. The sorting process is done by both machinery and employees who make sure everything in the bin actually can be recycled. And once the waste is sorted, it gets processed and sold to various markets.

Once sent to manufacturers, your waste is ready to be remade into something new. Check the labels on your household items. Some of your clothes, detergent containers, and paper towels may be made using recycled materials. This leads us to our next point: Recycling matters.

Why Is Recycling Important?

The simple answer is: Recycling is important because it's good for the environment. But there's more.

Humans generate a lot of waste. Some of it's physical, including the trash in our kitchen bins. And some of it is harder to see, such as fuel, chemicals, and energy. Both come into play when our garbage ends up in the landfill.

However, recycling keeps non-biodegradable products out of landfills. This then prevents greenhouse gas emissions from getting released and trapped in the atmosphere. According to the EPA, 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) was produced in 2018. That's 4.9 pounds per person per day. Of the MSW generated, about 69 million tons were recycled. That's 69 million tons of waste kept out of the landfill.

Plus, recycling materials can cut down energy consumption. If one ton of office paper is recycled, it saves the energy equivalent of consuming 322 gallons of gasoline. In addition, recycling 10 plastic bottles can save enough energy to power a laptop for over 25 hours.

Recycling can even reduce the need to extract natural materials from the environment. To create new items out of natural materials, manufacturers often contribute to deforestation, thus destroying natural ecosystems and biodiversity. Plus, the sourcing of natural materials still creates air and water pollution.

Because recycling decreases landfill waste, saves energy, and conserves natural resources, it also decreases carbon emissions and mitigates global warming's impact. So recycling can help you decrease your carbon footprint and live more sustainably.

Even still, recycling only does this when it's done correctly—and it can be tricky to get it right. That's why it's just as important to know which items can and can't be recycled.

What You Can Do to Help

1. Learn the Labels

The tiny triangle that tells you an item is recyclable isn't enough. On plastic items specifically, there may be a number 1-7 printed on the item. This number represents the type of plastic the item is made of, thus telling you how it can be recycled.

Your local recycling facility has a more detailed description of what to do with each type of plastic. That's why it's important to know the recycling rules in your area. What's recyclable for a friend in a city 1,000 miles away might not be recyclable for you.

2. Clean Your Recyclables

Most of our recyclable waste comes from takeout containers, meaning those containers are covered in excess food waste. And while the container itself may be recyclable plastic or cardboard, if it's dirty with food waste, it won't get recycled in the facility. Instead, it'll be sorted out and sent to a landfill.

Before throwing dirty recyclables in the recycling bin, be sure to rinse out the food waste. And if you're not sure what to do with organic food waste, try composting it.

3. Do Your Research

When in doubt, look it up! We have guides on how to recycle even the most complicated items, including electronic waste, worn-out clothes, shredded paper, shoes, pizza boxes, pillows, and more. That way, you'll never be left wondering how to dispose of an item responsibly.

4. Avoid Single-Use Items

While recycling is beneficial to the environment, it's more eco-friendly to avoid single-use items altogether. Instead, use reusable water bottles, utensils, coffee cups, tote bags, and more.

When you swap single-use items for reusable ones, you also decrease the amount of waste you produce. And then you won't have to worry about how to correctly recycle those confusing items.